Three weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans posted a blog “What’s Your Church Story?” She suggested that readers answer the question in a blog post. I have been looking at this on my list of suggested blogs to write for the 31 days of Blogathon since May 1st. Each time I see it, I decide to do it another day. Well, today is “another day,” and I am going to attempt to answer the question.
Grandmother told me that my first church experience was when I was christened in an Episcopal Church. My young mother’s best friend convinced her to have me christened. I don’t believe they ever attended the church after that.
After my grandparents adopted me, they sent me to a Presbyterian Church kindergarten. The teacher suggested that Grandmother bring me to church. My grandmother and grandfather would have made things very interesting had they indeed accepted the offer. They spent most of their time drinking, smoking, and cussing. The kindergarten teacher kept working on Grandmother, and when I began first grade, she started taking me to Sunday school and Church. She found religion and gave up most of her “sinful ways”, but she never seemed to have a change of heart and soul.
I loved going at first. Everyone was so nice, and it was the polar opposite of my home. Things were calm, peaceful, and no one was yelling or hitting. I wanted God and Jesus to know I was there and prayed they might come and rescue me if I was good enough. I adored the Minister. He was one of the kindest men I have ever known. I would dream that somehow he and his wife would become my parents. He always took time to talk to me. He would smile, put his arm around me, and would say, “God loves you, little one.” Over the years, the words would change, but the meaning was always the same. He was the Minister at the church until I was 15 years old.
Church, like school, became another place I didn’t fit in. I always did my Sunday school lessons at home and was prepared on Sunday morning. Grandmother made sure of that. I didn’t dress as well as the other children. We went to an upper middle-class church with some very affluent families. The kids all had the best clothes, while I wore clothes that Grandmother made. I could never have kids from church or school come to my house. The kids called me names, talked about me, made fun of me, and ostracized me from the group.
My grandparents decided to send me to a private Baptist high school, and I later attended a private Baptist college. I married during my first year in college, and we moved to Los Angeles, Ca. to live near my biological mother. We didn’t think about church for the next year. God was never out of my mind. However, it was out of fear and not love. When my son was born, we moved back to Charleston, SC.
My husband and his family were Southern Baptist. My father in law was the head deacons, and my mother in law was everything else. Soon my husband and I followed their example. While my husband became a deacon, I was relegated to tasks for women. I taught Sunday school, VBS, Children’s Choir, was Nursery Director, and anything else they could find.
We moved to West Va. Through an odd set of circumstances, we moved to a town in West Va. where our a church from Aiken, South Carolina had planted a mission church. We served as home missionaries at the Wayside Baptist Chapel for almost two years. It was literally a trailer on an acre of land. The pastor drove a big wood on the side station wagon. Every Sunday, he drove the local area bringing children to church. Many times, their families would follow. We held services without a piano, choir, or comfortable seats, but there was joy in that church.
When we moved back home, we started back in our large home church. We began assuming the same roles as we had before. I still struggled with my beliefs. I didn’t struggle with my faith. I always believed and knew God was there. I just didn’t understand all of it. I had so many questions. When my husband walked the aisle one Sunday morning and announced that God had called him to the ministry, I thought it was a joke. Let’s just say I never saw him as minister material.
Once again, we packed up the kids and our house and moved to Wake Forest, N.C. to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. My husband received his Masters of Divinity and Masters of Religious Education. I received a PHT (Putting Hubby Through–Yes–a real certificate), and I became an alcoholic…… (a bit of pause here so you can go back and read that again.) I kept my drinking a secret and led a double life. I asked for a divorce during this time, but he convinced me to stay.
We returned home after months of visiting churches with no call for a position. He went back to work in the real world. We started attending a different church at this time because he was angry at our home church. I once again fell into the dutiful roles assigned to me. I was struggling with my faith and life. I asked some of the questions I had held back for years. They said some of my questions were on the verge of blasphemy. They told my husband to get me back in line.
Two women came to my house one Sunday afternoon. I had missed Sunday school and Church again. I was hung over, but they didn’t know that. I explained that I had questions. There were things I wasn’t sure I understood or believed. Most of them revolved around the role of women in the church and discrimination in the church. We didn’t allow people of other races to be members of the church at that time. The women didn’t take long to pack up their little purses and hightail it out of my house. Perhaps they thought Satan had taken me over and they might be next.
I went back to church a few times after that. No one spoke to me, no one offered to pray with me or see if they could help me. I ran into our music director and a choir member at the mall. They turned and walked the other way. I was already in a spiritual crisis, and that pushed me to the point of no return. I was soon divorced without custody of my children. In the South, ordained minister trumps sinner every time. Yes, I still have some anger. I do believe I have forgiven everyone including myself for those times in my life, but when I talk about it, some bits of pain and anger come through.
I know God directed my life during the next months. I found a therapist who helped me change my life. She was the perfect person to guide me during that time. She had struggled with her faith and became a link back to God for me. I was later diagnosed with some mental health issues. I wrote about that in a blog recently. I attended a twelve-step program and got clean and sober. God became more real to me during my time in the program. The twelve steps took me on a journey to find a personal relationship with God I never had before. The people in my life showed me the love of God instead of telling me about it. I continued to find my faith and build that relationship for a long time before I would be brave enough to go back to church.
I knew in my heart that God was leading me back to church. I didn’t know where to start. I took an Alpha Course at a local church. It is a ten-week course where they do not ask you to come to church unless it is your choice. Shortly after that, my best friend died unexpectedly. I blamed God. I was hurt and angry. It took some time before I was ready to try again.
I visited several churches. I tried a church my husband liked, but I knew I would it wasn’t the place for me. One Sunday, I wanted to attend a Methodist church a friend had recommended, but I couldn’t find it. I did a quick internet search and discovered a Presbyterian Church just a few blocks away.
We visited for a while, and it seemed like the right place to be. It certainly wasn’t the church I imagined I would attend. I liked the pastor and the people. We did eventually join the church, and it is now my church home. I feel safe there. I love the older women. The pastor is now one of my best friends, and she has encouraged me along the way. I have struggled at times, but I think it should be that way. Faith isn’t always easy or pretty.
If you read my blogs, you know my favorite author is Anne Lamott. She says,
“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”― Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
God heard me when I cried, “HELP.” He heard me not while I was in church, but while I sat on the floor drunk, alone, crying, and listening to an Amy Grant record. He heard my prayers and listened to my ranting. It took a long time, but I finally came to understand that God loves me unconditionally. He may get annoyed and send me to time out occasionally, but He still loves me. I don’t have to go to church. But, now I want to.